Africa Matters to U.S. Cities
Report by Judd Devermont
Cape Town, South Africa, and Salt Lake City, Utah in the United States. Florian Frey via Adobe Stock / John via Adobe Stock / CSIS
Africa matters to U.S. cities. Over the past few decades, the continent has shaped the wealth, foreign policy profile, academic success, and cultural life of America’s major cities.
The Hometown Argument
The national security pitch about why Africa matters to the United States tends to fall on deaf ears.
Its recurrent themes—terrorism, migration, infectious diseases, and humanitarian crises—fail to resonate with most Americans. Only 1 percent of respondents believed Africa was the most important region for U.S. national security according to a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in January 2020. Instead of just preaching to beltway insiders, U.S. policymakers need to craft a hometown argument about Africa’s significance. They have to showcase how the continent enriches Americans’ daily lives, along with the vibrant economic, political, social, and cultural ties that bind U.S. cities and Africa together.
In the past year, the CSIS Africa Program researched the links between African countries and 15 U.S. cities. The resounding conclusion is that a U.S. city’s ties to the continent contribute to its local industries, foster political leadership, enrich cultural life, advance academic scholarship, and promote faith-based and philanthropic endeavors.
It's The Economy
Africa is an important investment destination for many leading U.S. industries and Fortune 500 companies, contributing to U.S. jobs and increasing the revenue base for several cities. There is real enthusiasm toward increasing two-way trade and investment. In 2015, Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield led a trade and development mission to South Africa and Tanzania, extolling South Africa as a “powerhouse on the continent” and as an emerging market with broad interests from Alabama exporters.
Many U.S. companies see Africa as a key part of their global portfolio. Exxon-Mobil, headquartered in Dallas, has a diverse portfolio in Africa, including investments in Nigeria and Angola, as well as a stake in Mozambique’s massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) project. For Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, Africa comprised 20 percent of sales by volume for the Europe, Middle East, and Africa division in 2018.
Ties to Africa are generating jobs for Americans. Boeing, which is one of the largest employers in Seattle and St. Louis, represents nearly 70 percent of the airplane market currently in service across the continent. In Wichita, known as the flight capital of the world, Bombardier and Textron sell aircraft and aviation services to customers in sub-Saharan Africa.
U.S.-African business links are also benefiting the continent. Western Union, headquartered in Denver, services more than 500 locations in Nigeria as part of its nearly 21,000 agent network in Africa. Anheuser-Busch InBev in St. Louis committed in 2019 to invest up to $400 million at its brewery in Nigeria. Also in 2019, Microsoft announced plans to spend more than $100 million to open offices in Nairobi, Kenya, and Lagos, Nigeria. Amazon Web Services recently established its first Africa data center in Cape Town and is hiring 3,000 people in South Africa to provide support to customers in North America and Europe.
A Rising Political Tide
Several U.S. municipal, state, and national politicians are at the forefront of U.S.-Africa policy, shaping bilateral ties on behalf of their constituents.
Senator James Risch of Idaho, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been a leading voice for democracy and human rights in Cameroon, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico have weighed in on China’s role in Africa and conservation and climate change in Kenya and Botswana.
Others—including Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Representatives Terri Sewell of Alabama and Adam Smith of Washington—have had high profile visits to the continent, a signal of how U.S. representatives prioritize and elevate African issues.
State and city officials have proudly welcomed African immigrants and refugees, and they firmly expressed their opposition to the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey affirmed on Twitter that “immigrants and refugees are welcome in Minneapolis” in response to President Trump’s derogatory comments about refugees and Somali migrants. In a letter to Trump, Republican governor Gary Herbert pointed to Utah’s history as a haven for Mormons fleeing persecution, declaring that “we will continue to open our arms to individuals and families fleeing persecution and civil war — and hoping for a better life.”
In recent years, there have been more first- and second-generation members of the African diaspora in politics and government service, inspiring and giving voice to their communities. Ilhan Omar’s 2019 election to be the first Somali American in Congress elicited celebrations from thousands of Somalis in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs. In 2020, two Liberian Americans, Naquetta Ricks and Nathan Biah, won seats in the House of Representatives in Colorado and Rhode Island, respectively. Nigerian-American Esther Agbaje clinched a win in Minnesota’s House of Representatives, also representing parts of Minneapolis.
National security interests also connect U.S. cities to Africa. Many African countries are key U.S. allies, and these alliances play out on a local level on both sides of the Atlantic. Alabama and New Mexico National Guard units have deployed to Djibouti. The North Carolina National Guard has a state partnership with the Botswana Defence Force, offering support, training, and resources.
Apart from deployments and training, the national security community has contributed to humanitarian and public health efforts on the continent. McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita supported African Union-led efforts to provide humanitarian relief and to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa. In Albuquerque, Sandia National Laboratories worked to mitigate the effects of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—based in Atlanta—participated in AFRICOM’s African Partnership Outbreak Response Alliance conference in October, focusing on a collective response to infectious disease outbreaks.
Africa’s vibrant diaspora communities enrich many cities’ cultural and intellectual lives.
In Boise, nearly a thousand refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East journey to Idaho every year to make a new life. Many Boise residents see refugees as being vital for reviving the city’s economy. Similarly, in 2019 the Columbus Dispatch affirmed that “people from throughout Africa help make up Ohio’s identity.” In 2013, sociologist Joseph Scott and historian Solomon Getahun published Little Ethiopia of the Pacific Northwest, detailing how the Ethiopian community has adapted, struggled, and thrived in Seattle.
Many U.S. cities have become a cherished home for diaspora communities. In Providence, the city’s prominent Cape Verdean community started to arrive in the mid-1800s through New England’s whaling industry. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 99,000 African diaspora members in Dallas, 94,000 in Minneapolis, 43,000 in Columbus, 15,000 in Detriot, and 5,000 in Durham.
Once diaspora communities are established in the United States, they often become rich focal points for African festivals, music, food, and art in major metropolitan areas throughout the country.
Detroit has hosted the African World Festival for more than three decades, attracting over 125,000 people every year. Similarly, the annual Spirit of Africa at the Seattle Center brings to life the “richness, diversity, and joyfulness” of African music and dance. In Columbus, there are Somali and Ghanaian cultural events, including the Columbus African Festival, which aims to “unite immigrants while introducing their ways of life to the rest of the city.” Georgia Tech staged Africa Atlanta 2014, a year-long series of art exhibits, lectures, performances, and conferences that was designed to reshape the relationship between Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
Beyond festivals and cultural events, many cities in the United States and across Africa have established rewarding exchanges with African institutions. For example, there are partnerships between Albuquerque’s ABQ BioPark and Cote d’Ivoire’s Zoo National d’Abidjan and also between Zoo Boise and Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique.
But perhaps the most symbolic form this exchange takes is through sister cities, which foster strong people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. Nine of the 15 cities featured in this project have sister-city relations, which can create lasting ties in both of the communities involved. Lukonde Mulenga, who studied at University of Michigan, shared that her father traveled from Kitwe, Zambia, a sister city to Detroit, on “a dare” and forged a lasting family connection to the city and state.
Diaspora members serve as prominent academics, medical professionals, religious leaders, and entrepreneurs all across the United States.
According to a Pew Center report in 2018, African immigrants tend to be more educated than native-born Americans. Sixty-nine percent of sub-Saharan African immigrants in the United States have some college education, compared to 63 percent of native-born Americans.
A standout feature in Africa’s relations with U.S. cities is the continent’s prominence in academia. Most major universities have African studies programs or centers for the study of Africa and its diaspora.
The University of Washington has a Horn of Africa Initiative to address the perceived gap in expertise and courses in most U.S. education institutions. Ohio State University’s Center for African Studies hosts a Model African Union to “mobilize and engage Ohio State students” on African affairs.
U.S. educational institutions are conducting groundbreaking research on a variety of topics in Africa while partnering with local colleges and universities on the continent. Dr. Benjamin Akande, an assistant vice chancellor at Washington University-St. Louis’s Global Health Center, highlighted in 2019 that the university has 128 faculty members conducting research or field work in 36 African countries. More specifically, the University of Alabama-Birmingham has received large, often multimillion-dollar grants to work on obstetric and gynecological research in five sub-Saharan African countries. In 2015, the University of Rhode Island worked with the University of Cape Coast in Ghana as part of a $24 million sustainable fisheries project. Finally, the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center conducts outreach and trainings for eye care in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Sudan.
African students and educators add to the educational experience of U.S. students and also grow regional economies around college and university campuses. Since 1950, the United States has welcomed an estimated 1.6 million African students to colleges and universities. In 2019, African students contributed about $1.7 billion to the U.S. economy.
Many prominent African officials, academics, and authors have accepted residencies at major U.S. universities and colleges. In 2013, former Nigerian Minister of State for Health Muhammad Pate served as a visiting professor at the Duke Global Health Institute. Acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe taught at Brown University from 2009 until his death in 2013.
Good Deeds At Home And Abroad
While Africa’s important economic, political, cultural, and academic connections may be subtle for most Americans, it is the religious and philanthropic ties that resonate most powerfully and visibly.
Through their churches, synagogues, and mosques, Americans donate money, volunteer their time, and traveled to the region to help. The Mormon Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, supports missionaries in 34 African countries.
Minnesota United Methodists sent money and volunteered to construct the new secondary school in Sierra Leone, providing an opportunity for 800 children to graduate from high school. In Providence, several local rabbis established a relationship between their synagogues and Nigeria’s Igbo Jews.
U.S. cities are also home to major philanthropic enterprises that support development efforts across Africa. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle supports a range of programs in health and nutrition, agriculture, and financial services for the poor in 10 sub-Saharan African countries.
In Atlanta, the Carter Center has spearheaded numerous initiatives, from Guinea worm eradication to containing the spread of Covid-19 in Liberia. Several organizations also chipped in during the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, from Dallas-based McKesson, one of the largest U.S. healthcare services companies in the United States, to Clinics in a Can, a small outfit in Wichita that had the innovative idea to turn shipping containers into medical clinics.
Whether religious or secular, philanthropic work in cities across the United States has had a profound impact on communities in America and throughout Africa. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, these ties will be even more vital. Members of the African diaspora have been on the frontlines, from Alice Morais, a Cabo Verdean immigrant who cleans and disinfects the ER rooms of Covid-19 patients at the Rhode Island Hospital, to Tanzanian doctor Albasha Hume, who died treating others with the disease in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis.
A Future Together
The CSIS Africa Program showcases how the continent enriches Americans’ daily lives, highlighting economic, political, social, and cultural ties in 15 featured U.S. cities.
There are several opportunities to deepen ties between African countries and U.S. cities. If these relationships continue to deliver mutual benefits and increase in visibility, they have the potential to elevate the continent’s importance to American citizens. This would benefit both U.S. and African economies, as well as set the stage for more constructive political and security relations.
Below are five actions that would create stronger and more lasting ties between African countries and U.S. cities:
1. Promote City Partnerships
The U.S. government should strengthen to the sister-city program, which is too often symbolic and episodic. A good model would be to establish the economic equivalent of the U.S. military’s state partnership program. There are currently 15 partneships between U.S. states and African nations, including North Carolina and Botswana. As a foundation for city-to-city ties, the United States should also advocate for more sub-Saharan African cities to be included in global mayoral networks, such as the Partnership for Healthy Cities and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.
2. Engage the Diaspora
The United States can do more to increase its engagement with the African diaspora. During his 2020 campaign, President-elect Biden released his agenda for the African diaspora. This includes:
- Restoring America’s historic commitment as a place of refuge;
- Providing access to affordable education, including at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs); and
- Ensuring that the U.S. government reflects the diversity of the United States, including African diaspora professionals.
In addition, U.S. politicians and diplomats should commit to regularly travel to diaspora communities. This will allow them to solicit recommendations from these communities and work to address their concerns about U.S. policy toward Africa.
3. Revive the African Leader Visit
In the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. diplomats routinely escorted African counterparts across the United States. During these trips, African diplomats had the opportunity to marvel at U.S. innovation at Texas Tech University and Cal-State Fresno, engage city officials and business leaders in Tucson and Sioux City, and experience U.S. history at Colonial Williamsburg and in Honolulu. The United States should dust off this successful but neglected playbook and work with local city officials, who can serve as a bridge to the country’s rich variety of historic, technological, and cultural attractions.
4. Practice Reciprocity
U.S. diplomats can increase the number of reverse trade missions and facilitate African leader visits to promote investment in Africa and spur new deals. But it is just as important that senior U.S. officials return the favor when traveling to African countries. The standard trip to the continent is as mundane as African leaders’ current excursions to the United States. U.S. senior officials can work to change this with requests ranging from a visit to one of the continent’s more than 400 tech hubs or by attending an NBA Africa basketball league game.
5. Refine the Narrative
It is imperative to continue to hone a hometown argument about why Africa matters to U.S. cities and to work to engage U.S. communities beyond the beltway. This can be accomplished by a variety of simple but effective tactics, including:
- Hosting townhalls;
- Working with U.S. creative industries, which produced blockbusters such as Black Panther and Beyoncé’s Lion King soundtrack; and
- Teaming up with U.S. and African media to ensure wider coverage of this important relationship. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Information Service made short films detailing a leader’s trip to the United States.
U.S. cities benefit economically, politically, and culturally from connections to the continent. While beltway experts should continue to refine a national security argument about Africa’s importance, they also should spend equal time sharpening a hometown pitch. A more constructive U.S. policy toward Africa depends on it.
About the Author
Director, Africa Program
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, he served as the national intelligence officer for Africa from 2015 to 2018. In this position, he led the U.S. intelligence community’s analytic efforts on sub-Saharan African issues and served as the DNI’s personal representative at interagency policy meetings. From 2013 to 2015, he was the Central Intelligence Agency’s senior political analyst on sub-Saharan Africa. Mr. Devermont also served as the National Security Council director for Somalia, Nigeria, the Sahel, and the African Union from 2011 to 2013. In this role, he contributed to the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, signed by President Obama in 2012, and managed the process that resulted in U.S. recognition of the Somali government for the first time since 1991. Mr. Devermont spent two years abroad working at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria from 2008 to 2010.
Special thanks to:
- Sarah Grace, Producer and Multimedia Content Lead, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Topaz Mukulu, Program Manager, Africa Program, CSIS
- Marielle Harris, Research Associate, Africa Program, CSIS
- Peter Opitz, Social Media and Podcast Intern, CSIS
- Caleb Diamond, Media Relations Manager and Editorial Associate, External Relations
- Serven Maraghi, Developer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Jonathan Choi, Web Development Intern, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Elizabeth Richardson, Associate Designer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Liz Pulver, Junior Multimedia Producer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Nthanze Kariuki, Intern, CSIS Africa Program
- Naquetta Ricks, Representative-elect, Colorado HD40
- Hilda Lockhart, Director for the International Trade Division, Alabama Department of Commerce
- Elder Anthony Kaku, Coordinator, Seminaries & Institutes, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- The American Committees on Foreign Relations
This project is made possible with generous support from Open Society Foundations (OSF).